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REVIEW: John McWhorter’s ‘Woke Racism’

What's in a religion?

'Woke Racism: How a New Religion Betrayed Black America' by John McWhorter / penguinrandomhouse.com
• November 14, 2021 5:01 am

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Woke Racism, the new book from social critic and Columbia linguist John McWhorter, has a simple thesis: Contemporary elite progressivism (aka "wokeness") is a religion. "I do not mean that these people's ideology is ‘like' a religion," McWhorter quickly clarifies. "I mean that it actually is a religion. An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism." This religion is bad, he argues, because it demeans both white adherents and black people generally; but this argument is ultimately secondary to his skepticism of its social influence as a religion.

The idea that wokeness is a religion is not unique to McWhorter (I myself have trafficked in it), although his is probably the first book-length statement thereof. There's a certain intuitive appeal—what else to call the dogmatic fervor with which today's progressives prosecute their cause, if not religious?

McWhorter's case rests on identified similarities between wokeness—disciples of which he calls the "Elect"—and religion. The Elect have internally inconsistent views, which require dogmatic commitment to hold. They have "superstition," which is to say questions they deem it impolite to ask or try to answer. They have "clergy," in the form of woke influencers like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. They have "original sin" in the sense that being born white confers an irremovable moral stain. They evangelize. They have an eschatology, a belief in a coming "racial reckoning" when America will own up to its racial sins and be purified. And of course they "ban the heretic" wherever possible.

As far as characterizations go, these are reasonable. But do they really a religion make? Religions usually offer a theology, but wokeness has no account of God or gods plural. Religions are concerned with the mysterious, but wokeness has neither a spiritual component nor a mystical tradition (vague alignment with Gwyneth-Paltrow-style quackery notwithstanding). Religions require regular ritual practice—going to church on Sunday, praying toward Mecca five times a day, etc.—but while there are common things that woke people do, they do not entail the routine drumbeat of religious life.

McWhorter dismisses such concerns, writing that "we have traditionally restricted the word religion to certain ideologies founded in creation myths, guided by ancient texts, and requiring that one subscribe to certain beliefs beyond the reach of empirical experience … [but] the word religion could easily apply as well to more recently emerged ways of thinking within which there is no explicit requirement to subscribe to unempirical beliefs, even if the school of thought does reveal itself to entail such beliefs upon analysis."

Yet McWhorter's account of wokeness both excludes many properties religions have, and includes properties which are not unique to religions distinct from other social movements. Charismatic leaders, evangelization, a desire to push out those who do not conform to the group: All are characteristic of many secular social groups.

That wokeness has a dogmatic character—that it requires its adherents to profess a belief in certain views, against all evidence—is maybe more religion-like. But lots of social movements throughout history have been motivated by ethical fervor and strong moral commitments—Prohibition, e.g., or the Satanic Panic of the 1980s—without being religious. If wokeness is a religion, would it be fair to call the 9/11 truth movement a religion as well? It after all had charismatic leaders, evangelized, and was committed to a dogmatic truth claim plainly at odds with both reality and itself.

Many people are perfectly comfortable holding contradictory moral views on topics as diverse as abortion, criminal justice, and pornography. As a general rule, people do not hold ethical views because they come to them rationally through discussion; they hold them based on intrinsic aversions and attractions, which they subsequently justify as needed. So indicating that a certain set of views is internally inconsistent does not a religion make—most folk accounts of ethics are themselves internally incoherent.

One begins to suspect that the utility of "wokeness is a religion"—to many of its proponents, if not necessarily to McWhorter—comes from the belief that religion is basically irrational, a vestige of the pre-Enlightenment mind which is only vaguely tolerated in modern, secular society. By lumping wokeness and religion together, each can be demeaned by reference to the other, labeled as the sort of thing civilized denizens of the 21st century do not do. It is this account of belief that makes "wokeness as religion" so appealing to secular liberal critics of progressivism (and, perhaps, why the historically atheistic French are so hostile to American political correctness).

But this does a disservice both to religion, which is cheapened by the analogy, and to critical analysis of wokeness as a phenomenon. If contemporary elite progressivism is distinguished by its irrationality, then not only can we not (as McWhorter suggests) argue with it, we also can't understand its spread as a product of rational forces. We can't ask what changes in the social, political, and economic environment around the late 2010s instigated the "Great Awokening." All we can say is that all of a sudden, we began to satisfy our religious impulse in a new and particularly toxic way.

McWhorter concludes the book with a series of proposals for responding to wokeness, most of which boil down to refusing to be cowed by bullying tactics. That's good advice, as far as it goes. But by identifying wokeness as a religion, McWhorter elides the institutional and economic levels on which wokeness operates—there is no room for a critique of woke capital or a theory of response to it at anything other than a personal level.

As far as statements of the "wokeness is a religion" thesis go, McWhorter's is an admirable contribution, and he should be appreciated for making it. But in so doing, he shows the limits of that view—critics of wokeness should, after reading, discard the idea altogether for a more critical lens.

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America
by John McWhorter
Portfolio, 224 pp., $28

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.

Published under: Book reviews, woke